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Stonehenge is a Neolithic / Bronze Age monument located on Salisbury Plain, Wiltshire, southern England. The first monument on the site, began around 3100 BCE, was a circular ‘henge’ earthwork about 360 feet (110 metres) in diameter, a 'henge' in the archaeological sense being a circular or oval-shaped flat area enclosed by a boundary earthwork.

This structure probably contained a ring of 56 wooden posts (or possibly an early bluestone circle), the pits for which are named Aubrey Holes (after the 17th century local antiquarian John Aubrey). Later, around 3000 BCE (the beginning of Stonehenge Phase II), some kind of timber structure seems to have been built within the enclosure, and Stonehenge functioned as a cremation cemetery, the earliest and largest so far discovered in Britain. Phase III at Stonehenge, beginning around 2,550 BCE, involved the refashioning of the simple earth and timber henge into a unique stone monument.

In the first stage, two concentric circles, (sometimes known as the ‘Double Bluestone Circle’), of 80 ‘bluestone’ (dolorite, rhyolite and tuff) pillars were erected at the centre of the monument, with a main entrance to the North East. These bluestones, weighing about 4 tons each, originate in the Preseli Hills, in Pembrokeshire, south-west Wales, and were probably transported from there to Salisbury Plain over a route at least 185 miles long (see the chapter on Preseli). Apart from the bluestones, a 16.4 foot long greenish sandstone slab, now known as the Altar Stone, was brought to Stonehenge from somewhere between Kidwelly, near Milford Haven on the coast to the south of the Preseli Hills and Abergavenny, in southeast Wales.

It is thought that that the north eastern entrance to the enclosure was remodelled during Phase III so that it precisely aligned with the midsummer sunrise and midwinter sunset of the period. Outside this entrance another feature, known as the Avenue, was added to the Stonehenge landscape. The Avenue (probably a ceremonial pathway) consists of a parallel pair of ditches and banks stretching for 1.5 miles from Stonehenge down to the River Avon. It had previosuly been thought that around 2,400 BCE the bluestones were dug up and replaced by enormous sarsen blocks brought from a quarry around 24 miles to the north on the Marlborough Downs.

However, recent work lead by Mike Parker Pearson, Professor of Archaeology at the University of Sheffield has suggested redating the sarsen phase to 2640-2480 BCE, which would obviously affect the chronology of the site significantly. Thirty of these huge sarsens, each around 13.5 feet high, 7 feet wide and weighing around 25 tons, were set up in a 98 foot diameter circle. On top of these were placed smaller sarsen lintels (horizontal stones) spanning the tops and held in place by ‘mortice and tenon’ joints. Within this sarsen circle a horse-shoe shaped setting of 15 more sarsens, making five trilithons (two large stones set upright to support a third on their top) was erected. Somewhere between 2280 and 1900 BCE, the blue stones were re-erected and arranged at least three times, finally forming an inner circle and horseshoe between the sarsen circle and the trilithons, mirroring the two arrangements of sarsen stones. This arrangement is essentially the monument that we see the remains of today.

Between 2030 and 1520 BCE a double ring of oblong pits, known as the Y and Z holes, were dug outside the outermost sarsen circle, possibly to take another setting of stones. However, there is no evidence that the holes ever held stones or wooden posts and they were eventually allowed to silt up naturally. The Y and Z holes seem to mark the end of significant activity at the site and after c. 1520 BCE there was no further construction at Stonehenge, and the monument appears to have been abandoned.

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But why was Stonehenge built and was was it used for? As mentioned above, the monument certainly functioned as a cremation cemetery early in its history, probably for the burial of elite members of clans or prominent local families. The presence of a number of burials around Stonehenge which exhibit signs of trauma or deformity have suggested to some researchers, among them Professor Timothy Darvill of Bournemouth University, that the monument was a place of healing, akin to a prehistoric Lourdes. Other researchers, such as Professor Mike Parker Pearson, head of the Stonehenge Riverside Project at the University of Sheffield, believe that Stonehenge functioned as the domain of the dead in a ritual landscape that involved sacred processions to the nearby henge monument of Durrington Walls.

But it would be wrong to attempt to define a single use for Stonehenge. The function of the monument probably changed many times over its 1500 year history as different peoples came and went in the surrounding landscape, and the nature of society changed irrevocably from the Neolithic to the Bronze Age.

What is Stonehenge?

The Neolithic wonder of Stonehenge

In order to appreciate fully the ancient site that is Stonehenge, a little history helps put it into perspective. There is a risk otherwise, that people may simply view it 'cold', as simply a ring of stones in a barren field in the middle of nowhere.

Those that go there having read a little about our Neolithic ancestors who built it and worshipped there, often come away with their 'experience' of Stonehenge as a memory of their lifetime.

So, this page aims to give you some basic information and facts about the Neolithic people who built Stonehenge, when they built it, and the stones that were used. We have another page, The Mysteries of Stonehenge, that is a natural follow on to this page and covers the theories of what Stonehenge was used for and how it was built.

We think if you read both of these pages prior to your visit to Stonehenge the knowledge will greatly enhance your enjoyment and provide some level of excited anticipation of what you will see on your visit.

Stonehenge Early History

Archaeologists have been able to establish when the construction of Stonehenge began and estimate it at 2700 BC with the first large stones being placed around 2500 BC.

The large stones were erected and then the Avenue, a grand-scale earthwork monument sweeping nearly 2 miles from the River Avon to the north-eastern entrance of Stonehenge, was begun. Archaeologists claim the construction concluded around 2000 BC with the placing of the raised stones across the circle of stones laid before and the laying of the heel stone at the start of the avenue.

Modifications, carvings and outlying stones continued to be added over the next 500-1000 years.

Below is the drawing showing how the completed monument likely looked in 1500 BC.

We also now that given the length of time taken to create Stonehenge, a number of different groups participated in the construction, and likely with different motivations for the project.

Stonehenge T heories

Stonehenge has encouraged a fair amount of scientifically sound arguments as well. Here are few theories that still exists:

Place for Healing

This theory suggests that the people of Stone Age saw the site as a healing place with healing things present in it.

Archaeologists Timothy Darvill and Geoggry Wainwright stated in 2008, that vast number of bones unearthed from Stonehenge depicted signs of injury or illness.

They also reported detecting pieces of Stonehenge bluestones it was the first stones built here however, it was damaged by the primitive people. Probably to use as stones for safeguarding or treatment purpose.

A Soundscape

According to Steven Waller, a researcher in Archaeoacoustics, said that Stonehenge’s circular erection was developed to impersonate a sound deception.

He said that if two pipers were playing the instruments in a field, the one who’s listening to music would hear a strange effect.

The stones concoct a similar impact, excluding stones, instead of contending sound waves, deterring sound, Steven stated at the meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 2012.

He further stated that the legends connected with Stonehenge mention pipers, as well. The prehistoric circles are conventionally called as piper stones. His theory is hypothetical.

However, other scientists have corroborated that Stonehenge had excellent acoustics.

A Celestial Observatory

It makes no difference when it was constructed, it might have been created keeping the sun in mind.

One path linking the gravestone with the river Aven line up with the sun on the winter solstice.

Archaeological proof discloses that pigs were butchered at Stonehenge in December and January, insinuating probable celebration or ceremonies at the monuments throughout the winter solstice.

A Place for Burial

According to the new research, it has probably been a graveyard originally for the exclusives. Skull pieces were initially disinterred from the site centuries ago.

However, archaeologist didn’t find the remains to be that important, so they decided to bury them again.

The British researchers have again exhumed the remains of more than 50,000 incinerated skull pieces from the site where they were abandoned, depicting 63 separate beings.

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7 Fascinating Facts About England’s Mysterious Stonehenge

Stock Photos from The Walker/Shutterstock
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One of the most famous ancient monuments in history, Stonehenge has long captured the imagination of the public. The prehistoric monument, which is located in Wiltshire, England, is shrouded in mystery. Its enigmatic nature has made the site infamous since its rediscovery in the 18th century and now over 1 million people a year flock to walk among the stones.

What is it about Stonehenge that makes it so fascinating? Perhaps it's the folkloristic connection to the rituals of ancient Druids or maybe it's its persistence in popular culture. The Beatles, Black Sabbath, and Spinal Tap have all included Stonehenge in their music, while it's consistently featured in film and television.

A UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1986, Stonehenge has become so popular with visitors that there are now ropes to prevent the public from getting too close and damaging the stones. Exceptions to this occur during the summer and winter solstice and the spring and autumn equinox when visitors are allowed to stroll between the stones.

With so much mystery surrounding Stonehenge, its popularity means that scientists and archaeologists have been researching the site extensively. So while we don't have all the answers, there are a surprising amount of Stonehenge facts that help peel back the layers of history around the prehistoric site.

Stock Photos from Nicholas Grey/Shutterstock

Stonehenge Wasn't Built All at Once

Stonehenge as we now see it is not the work of a single construction period. Rather, the area was built up in stages over the course of 1500 years. Initially, the monument was just a circular bank and ditch enclosure. Completed around 3100 BCE, the ditch was dug using antler picks. Stone became the favored material around 2600 BCE and up until 1600 BCE they were erected and arranged in stages to become the monument we now know.

Stock Photos from Wayne Hilton Shakell/Shutterstock

Stonehenge was Most Likely Part of a Larger Sacred Area

Salisbury Plain, where Stonehenge is located, is a chalk plateau that stretches across 300 square miles. Stonehenge, which could have acted as a burial site, is not the first sacred monument in the area. Three large timber posts erected onsite date to 10,500 years ago, indicating that Salisbury Plain was already a sacred area long before Stonehenge.

In 2014, scientists released the results of a four-year study that used radar and other non-invasive techniques to survey the area. Interestingly, they found a number of hidden Neolithic shrines which gives further evidence to the theory that Stonehenge was one small piece of a much larger puzzle.

Stock Photos from Rifki Alfirahman/Shutterstock

The Monument Uses Two Types of Stone

There are two kinds of stones found at Stonehenge&mdashlarger sarsens and smaller bluestones. Sarsens, which are a type of sandstone, are found naturally in the area surrounding the site. Archaeologists believe that the sarsens came from Marlborough Downs, which is 20 miles away. The bluestones, on the other hand, traveled much farther. It&rsquos thought that they were brought in from Preseli Hills in south-west Wales, which is about 140 miles from Stonehenge.

Recreation of how stones may have been moved to Stonehenge. (Stock Photos from SherSS/Shutterstock)

Transportation Remains a Mystery

Like many things about Stonehenge, how the rocks arrived on site remains a mystery. An average sarsen weighs 25 tons, while the bluestones weigh anywhere from 2 to 5 tons. There are different theories about how these stones arrived at Stonehenge, including the idea that bluestones were brought to Salisbury Plain by glaciers. However, it&rsquos more than likely that they were transported by humans using waterways and by hauling them over land.

Stock Photos from Rifki Alfirahman/Shutterstock

Construction Required Great Feats of Engineering

Getting the stones to stand upright took quite a bit of ingenuity. In the end, the builders used a technique more often associated with woodworking than masonry. They created mortice holes and protruding tenons in order to slot together the stones using tongue and groove joints. Of course, raising the stones also took quite a bit of engineering.

Once a hole was dug for the stones, timber poles were placed at the back of the hole to act as a brace. The stone was then put into position and hauled upwards using ropes while rubble was placed in the hole to hold the stone in place.

Stock Photos from Roger Nichol/Shutterstock

DNA is Helping Solve the Mysteries of Who Built Stonehenge

One of the biggest mysteries in history, it&rsquos unclear exactly who built Stonehenge. It was long believed that Druids&mdashCeltic Pagans&mdashconstructed it as a place of worship. However, construction on Stonehenge commenced long before the Druids came into existence.

Recently, a group of researchers used DNA analysis to pinpoint the origins of the builders. After analyzing the DNA of Mesolithic and Neolithic people in Britain, they noticed that there were great genetic similarities to farmers on Western Europe. They believe that around 4000 BCE farmers from the Aegean coast migrated to Britain, placing them in the country at the critical time when Stonehenge was being built.

Stock Photos from Charles Bowman/Shutterstock

Stonehenge has a Long History with Astronomy

Stonehenge has long been intertwined with astronomy, particularly due to the fact that it&rsquos aligned in the direction of the sunrise of the summer solstice and the sunset of the winter solstice. This was first noticed in 1720 by William Stukeley, the British archeologist who was a pioneer in studying Stonehenge.

Since that time, many renowned astronomers have studied Stonehenge, trying to find connections between its construction and the stars. One of the more famous theories comes from American astronomer Gerald Hawkins. His 1963 publication Decoded argued that Stonehenge could have been used to predict eclipses.

Building Stonehenge

Stonehenge is just one part of a larger sacred landscape that contains many other stone and wooden structures as well as burials. Archaeologists have also found evidence for widespread prehistoric hunting and a roadthat may have led to Stonehenge.

From what scientists can tell, Salisbury Plain was considered to be a sacred area long before Stonehenge itself was constructed. As early as 10,500 years ago, three large pine posts, which were totem poles of sorts, were erected at the site.

Hunting played an important role in the area. Researchers have uncovered roughly 350 animal bones and 12,500 flint tools or fragments, just a mile away from Stonehenge, the finds dating from 7500 B.C. to 4700 B.C. The presence of abundant game may have led people to consider the area sacred.

Dozens of burial mounds have been discovered near Stonehenge indicating that hundreds, if not thousands, of people were buried there in ancient times. At least 17 shrines, some in the shape of a circle, have also been discovered near Stonehenge. A "House of the Dead" was recently discovered near Stonehenge that dates to 3700 B.C.-3500 B.C.

Around 5,500 years ago two earthworks known as Cursus monuments were erected at Stonehenge, the longest of which ran for 1.8 miles (3 km). By 5,300 years ago two massive eyeglass-shaped wooden palisades, which were set ablaze during ceremonies, were constructed at Avebury, near Stonehenge.

At Stonehenge, more construction occurred around 5,000 years ago with postholes indicating that either bluestones or upright timber posts were propped up on the site. Then, around 4,600 years ago, a double circle made using dozens of bluestones was created at the site.

By 4,400 years ago, Stonehenge had changed again, having a series of sarsen stones erected in the shape of a horseshoe, with every pair of these huge stones having a stone lintel connecting them. In turn, a ring of sarsens surrounded this horseshoe, their tops connecting to each other, giving the appearance of a giant interconnected stone circle surrounding the horseshoe.

By 4,300 years ago, Stonehenge had been expanded to include the addition of two bluestone rings, one inside the horseshoe and another between the horseshoe and the outer layer of interconnected sarsen stones.

Construction at Stonehenge slowed down around 4,000 years ago. As time went on the monument fell into neglect and disuse, some of its stones fell over while others were taken away. [In Photos: A Walk Through Stonehenge]

There is an interesting connection between the earlier Cursus monuments and the later Stonehenge. Archaeologists found that the longest Cursus monument had two pits, one on the east and one on the west. These pits, in turn, align with Stonehenge's heel stone and a processional avenue.

"Suddenly, you've got a link between [the long Cursus pit] and Stonehenge through two massive pits, which appear to be aligned on the sunrise and sunset on the mid-summer solstice," said University of Birmingham archaeologist Vincent Gaffney, who is leading a project to map Stonehenge and its environs.

Some of the people who built Stonehenge may have lived near the monument at a series of houses excavated at Durrington Walls. Recently, archaeologists discovered evidence that people who lived in these houses feasted on meat and dairy products. The rich diet of the people who may have built Stonehenge provides evidence that they were not slaves or coerced, said a team of archaeologists in an article published in 2015 in the journal Antiquity.

What Lies Beneath Stonehenge?

We walked the Avenue, the ancient route along which the stones were first dragged from the River Avon. For centuries, this was the formal path to the great henge, but now the only hint of its existence was an indentation or two in the tall grass. It was a fine English summer’s day, with thin, fast clouds above, and as we passed through fields dotted with buttercups and daisies, cows and sheep, we could have been hikers anywhere, were it not for the ghostly monument in the near distance.

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Faint as the Avenue was, Vince Gaffney hustled along as if it were illuminated by runway lights. A short, sprightly archaeologist of 56, from Newcastle upon Tyne in northeast England, he knows this landscape as well as anyone alive: has walked it, breathed it, studied it for uncounted hours. He has not lost his sense of wonder. Stopping to fix the monument in his eyeline, and reaching out toward the stones on the horizon, he said, “Look, it becomes cathedralesque.”

Gaffney’s latest research effort, the Stonehenge Hidden Landscapes Project, is a four-year collaboration between a British team and the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute for Archaeological Prospection and Virtual Archaeology in Austria that has produced the first detailed underground survey of the area surrounding Stonehenge, totaling more than four square miles. The results are astonishing. The researchers have found buried evidence of more than 15 previously unknown or poorly understood late Neolithic monuments: henges, barrows, segmented ditches, pits. To Gaffney, these findings suggest a scale of activity around Stonehenge far beyond what was previously suspected. “There was sort of this idea that Stonehenge sat in the middle and around it was effectively an area where people were probably excluded,” Gaffney told me, “a ring of the dead around a special area—to which few people might ever have been admitted. Perhaps there were priests, big men, whatever they were, inside Stonehenge having processions up the Avenue, doing. something extremely mysterious. Of course that sort of analysis depends on not knowing what’s actually in the area around Stonehenge itself. It was terra incognita, really.”

Nobody has yet put a spade in the ground to verify the new findings, which were painstakingly gathered by geophysicists and others wielding magnetometers and ground-penetrating radars that scan the ground to detect structures and objects several yards below the surface. But Gaffney has no doubt of the work’s value. “This is among the most important landscapes, and probably the most studied landscape, in the world,” he says. “And the area has been absolutely transformed by this survey. Won’t be the same again.”

The joys and frustrations of all archaeological study—perhaps all historical inquiry—come into particularly sharp relief at Stonehenge. Even to the most casual observer, the monument is deeply significant. Those vast stones, standing in concentric rings in the middle of a basin on Salisbury Plain, carefully placed by who-knows-who thousands of years ago, must mean something. But nobody can tell us what. Not exactly. The clues that remain will always prove insufficient to our curiosity. Each archaeological advance yields more questions, and more theories to be tested. Our ignorance shrinks by fractions. What we know is always dwarfed by what we can never know.

The huge bluestones each weigh between four and eight tons and were brought to the site from North Wales, 170 miles away. (Photo by Henrik Knudsen, with thanks to English Heritage) The Stonehenge landscape, the new evidence suggests, guided the movement of great crowds. (Photo by Henrik Knudsen, with thanks to English Heritage) The heelstone aligns with the rising sun on the summer solstice as seen from the stone circle, about 80 yards away. It is one of “an excessive number” of such features in the Stonehenge landscape. (Photo by Henrik Knudsen, with thanks to English Heritage) The massive stone monument rising from Salisbury Plain must have been an impressive sight to ancient visitors (above, the site at dawn). (Photo by Henrik Knudsen, with thanks to English Heritage) The Stonehenge Hidden Landscapes Project used ground-penetrating radars (left) and GPS-guided magnetometers (right) to produce what amounts to a 3-D map of a four-square-mile area. (Photo by Henrik Knudsen, with thanks to National Trust, Stonehenge, Wiltshire) Nighttime only enhances the mystery of Stonehenge (above, a pair of enormous trilithons). Was it a temple? A graveyard? A healing place? (Photo by Henrik Knudsen, with thanks to English Heritage) Scholars believe the first stones were erected at Stonehenge around 2600 B.C. and that construction continued on the site for a millennia. (Photo by Henrik Knudsen, with thanks to English Heritage)

Take the big question: Was Stonehenge predominantly a temple, a parliament or a graveyard? Was it a healing ground? We don’t know, for sure. We know that people were buried there, and that the stones are aligned in astronomically important ways. We also understand, because of the chemical composition of animal bones found nearby and the provenance of the stones, that people traveled hundreds of miles to visit Stonehenge. But we cannot say, with certainty, why.

Try a simpler question: How did the bluestones, which weigh between four and eight tons apiece, arrive at the site, nearly 5,000 years ago, from 170 miles away in West Wales? Land or sea? Both alternatives explode with possibilities, and nobody has an impregnable theory. Mike Parker Pearson of University College London is working on a new idea that the bluestones might have been lifted onto huge wooden lattices and carried by dozens of men to the site. But it’s just a theory. We can’t know, definitively. We can only have better-informed questions.

A full map of the project’s findings is to be presented September 9 at the British Science Festival in Birmingham, England. (David Preiss)

The ineffability of Stonehenge has not dulled our appetite. The site has long proved irresistible to diggers. In 1620, the Duke of Buckingham had his men excavate right in the center of the monument. Although they did not know it at the time, they dug on the site of a prehistoric pit. Buckingham’s men found skulls of cattle “and other beasts” and large quantities of “burnt coals or charcoals”—but no treasure, as they had hoped.

In the 19th century, “barrow-digging,” or the excavation of prehistoric monuments and burial hills, was a popular pastime among the landed gentry. In 1839, a naval officer named Captain Beamish dug out an estimated 400 cubic feet of soil from the northeast of the Altar Stone at Stonehenge. As Parker Pearson notes in his book Stonehenge, Beamish’s “big hole was probably the final blow for any prehistoric features. that once lay at Stonehenge’s center.”

Cursus outlined in special effects. (© October Films for Smithsonian Channel) Vince Gaffney (in a special effects scene in the film Stonehenge Empire) stands above the mysterious pit at the western end of the Cursus. (© October Films for Smithsonian Channel) Frames from Stonehenge Empire show stones whose locations were determined only in 2013. (© October Films for Smithsonian Channel ) The monument as it would have appeared in its Neolithic heyday. (© October Films for Smithsonian Channel) The monument as it would have appeared in its Neolithic heyday. (© October Films for Smithsonian Channel)

Work at Stonehenge became less invasive. In 1952, Willard Libby—the American chemist and later a Nobel Prize winner—used his new radiocarbon dating technique on a piece of charcoal from a pit within Stonehenge to date the monument to 1848 B.C., give or take 275 years. That date has since been refined several times. The prevailing opinion is that the first stones were erected on the site around 2600 B.C. (although the building of Stonehenge was carried out over a millennium, and there were centuries of ritual activity at the site before the stones were in place).

In 2003, Parker Pearson conducted his own survey, concentrating on the nearby settlement at Durrington Walls and the area between there and the River Avon. Based on huts, tools and animal bones he uncovered, he concluded that Durrington Walls likely housed the workers who built Stonehenge. Based on an analysis of human remains he later excavated from Stonehenge, he also surmised that, far from being a site of quotidian religious activity, Stonehenge served as a cemetery–a “place for the dead.”

The Stonehenge Hidden Landscapes Project is different from everything that came before it. When Gaffney and his team started their work, they were less interested in theories than in data. To that end, they concentrated on taking what amounts to a three-dimensional and yards-deep photograph of the entire landscape. “The perceived wisdom was driven by the monuments we knew about,” says Gaffney. “We’ve put in the data between the monuments.”

Chris Gaffney, Vince’s younger, slighter and less voluble brother, was one of the instigators of this new approach. The duo’s grandfather was a metalwork teacher from Newcastle with an interest in archaeology, who took his clever grandchildren on trips to Hadrian’s Wall, the old barrier between the Roman Empire and the blasted north. Small wonder that Vince became an archaeologist and Chris a geophysicist, now at the University of Bradford.

The Gaffney brothers’ interest in new technologies that were becoming available to archaeologists led them to the first GPS-guided magnetometer systems. A magnetometer has sensors that allow a geophysicist to see evidence of historic building, and even ancient ditch-digging, beneath the soil by mapping variations in the earth’s magnetic field. The GPS-guided versions were able to pinpoint some of those discoveries to within one centimeter. The Gaffneys believed that Stonehenge scholarship needed a massive magnetometer- and radar-led survey of the whole site. “We just didn’t know if anything’s there,” Vince Gaffney recalled. “So we’re constructing various hypotheses on the basis of something we don’t know.”

Around the same time, an Austrian archaeologist named Wolfgang Neubauer, now of the Boltzmann Institute, was hoping to conduct large-scale projects all over Europe using tools including GPS magnetometers and ground-penetrating radar. Neubauer’s team had also developed software to process the 40 or 50 gigabytes of raw data that these instruments could create in a day. Suddenly, instead of waiting weeks or months to see what the machines had found, it was possible to cover several acres with magnetometers and radar in a day and to display that information on a screen almost instantaneously.

One of the areas Neubauer wanted to scan was Stonehenge, and in the spring of 2009 he contacted Vince Gaffney. A few months later, the Boltzmann Institute and the University of Birmingham—plus several other British and European universities, museums and companies that contributed expertise and resources—began their collaboration at Stonehenge.

Their first days on site, Gaffney recalled, were “like a geophysical circus has come to town.” Tractors pushed the ground-penetrating radars, which looked like high-powered lawn mowers. All-terrain vehicles dragged the magnetometer sensors on long strings. Delicate instruments covering hard, uneven ground kept mechanics and technicians busy. “I have seen one of our magnetometers shear clear apart in front of me,” said Gaffney. “It was back in service the next day.” In all, the fieldwork took about 120 days, spread over four years.

In a multimedia room at the University of Birmingham there was a vast touch screen, six feet by nine, on which a new map of the Stonehenge landscape appeared. Gaffney pointed out the key features.

There was Stonehenge itself, marked by the familiar circles. To the north was the long, thin strip called the Stonehenge Cursus or the Greater Cursus, which was demarcated by ditches, and ran east to west for nearly two miles. (The Cursus was given its name by the antiquarian William Stukeley in the 18th century because it looked like an ancient Roman race course. Its construction predates the first building work at Stonehenge by several hundred years.) Gaffney also pointed out the Cursus Barrows—hillocks containing mass human graves—just south of the Cursus itself, and King Barrow Ridge to the east.

Scattered all over the map were blotches of black: features without names. These were new finds, including the more than 15 possible new or poorly understood Neolithic monuments. Gaffney emphasized possible, acknowledging that it will require digging—“the testimony of the spade”—to discover precisely what was there.

Standing in front of this constellation of evidence, he seemed unable to decide where to start, like a child at the Christmas tree. “These are little henge monuments,” he said, touching the screen to highlight a group of black smudges. “Nice little entrance there, and a ditch. These things we know nothing about.”

He saved his greatest enthusiasm for the discoveries that had been made in the Cursus. This feature, said Gaffney, had always been thought of as a “bloody great barrier to the north of Stonehenge.” Nobody knew quite what it was for. Because the Cursus runs east to west, archaeologists have always believed that its presence owes something to the passage of the sun. The monument must be significant: It was dug in the fourth millennium B.C. using antler picks—hundreds of thousands of man-hours went into its construction.

The Hidden Landscapes Project’s instruments discovered several new clues. First of all, they found gaps in the ditch, in particular a very large break in the northern side, to allow people to enter and exit the Cursus. Now, instead of seeing the Cursus exclusively as a monument that encouraged movement along the path of the sun, east to west, Gaffney began to consider these gaps as “channels through the landscape” to guide the movement of people north to south.

A bigger discovery, Gaffney says, was a “bloody huge” pit about five yards in diameter at the eastern end of the Cursus. Today it lies buried at least three feet below the surface of the ground. Such a pit was much too large for a practical use—for instance, burying trash—because of the labor involved in digging it. In the archaeologists’ minds it could only have ritual implications, as “a marker of some kind,” Gaffney said. What’s more, if you drew a straight line between the pit and the heelstone at Stonehenge, it ran directly along the final section of the Avenue, on the path of the sunrise on the summer solstice.

“We thought, That’s a bit of a coincidence!” Gaffney recalled. “That was the point at which we thought, What’s at the other end? And there’s another pit! Two pits, marking the midsummer sunrise and the midsummer solstice, set within a monument that’s meant to be something to do with the passage of the sun.”

With his hands passing over the map, Gaffney showed how—on the longest days of the year—the pits formed a triangle with Stonehenge marking sunrise and sunset.

“Nobody had ever seen these pits before,” he continued. “But they link the area of Stonehenge with the Cursus directly. Either these things have been put inside the Cursus to mark these points, or the Cursus has been wrapped around them.”

What was so interesting about the Cursus pits was that they told a story about the landscape. The “sunrise” pit was visible from Stonehenge, but the “sunset” pit was not—it was nestled behind a ridge, and could have been seen only if there had been fire and smoke coming from it. (At some point the pits will have to be excavated for evidence of such activity.) These discoveries fed into a larger understanding of Stonehenge as “diachronic”—operating in light and dark, sunrise and sunset, day and night.

“The point I think we’re coming to,” said Gaffney, “is that increasingly we can see the area around Stonehenge as providing extensive evidence for complex liturgical movement—which we can now understand, largely because we know where things are.”

Parker Pearson, for his part, takes a cautious view of the new research. “Until you dig holes, you just don’t know what you’ve got,” he told me in his office at University College London. “What date it is, how significant it is. [There are] extraordinary new features coming up, and we’re thinking well, what are they?”

To be sure, he said the data from the Hidden Landscapes Project “backs up the pattern we’ve already been seeing for some years. We have an excessive number of solstice-aligned monuments in that landscape. Nowhere in the rest of Europe comes even close.” He added, “This is fantastic stuff that’s been done, and it’s raised a whole series of new questions,” he said. “It’s going to take years.”

The clouds shifted in front of the sun, dappling the landscape with shadow. Gaffney and I were walking the Avenue, 300 yards or so from Stonehenge, and in the distance a string of barrows gleamed like opals. Although he acknowledged the fallibility of all archaeological projection (“In the end,” he said, “we are all wrong”), his work has led him to a new interpretation of how Stonehenge was used.

Gaffney’s idea was not to focus on Stonehenge itself, but on “processionality” within the whole landscape. He imagined people moving around the area like Roman Catholics processing through the Stations of the Cross. He recalled an Easter Friday ritual he saw in Croatia, in which a “bloke with a cross” led fellow barefoot celebrants on a miles-long trip. In Gaffney’s view, the building of the great stone circle was a “monumentalizing” of a similar, if heathen, procession.

As we walked downhill through the fields, Gaffney stopped from time to time to point out the hillocks in which “the illustrious dead” were buried. He also noted how the Avenue was not a straight line between the Avon and Stonehenge, but rather a series of tacks that brought the visitor to the Stonehenge site in a “theatrical” way, along the line of sunrise on the summer solstice.

He thrust himself into the mind of a Bronze Age visitor to the site. “You will have seen nothing like it,” he said. “It would have been massively impressive.” Soon we descended into a valley called Stonehenge Bottom, only a hundred yards or so from the great stones. “They’re disappearing. Watch, just watch!” he said.

Within a few yards, the monument became invisible. When you picture Stonehenge in your mind’s eye, you imagine the concentric rings of vast stones standing in a desolate open landscape, visible for miles around. But now, here we were, a hundred yards away, and the thing had gone.

We stood in a field, watched by some lethargic cows, and savored the strangeness of the moment. Then, as we stepped uphill, Stonehenge re-emerged on the horizon. It happened fast. The lintels, then the great sarsens, then the smaller bluestones were suddenly before us.

Gaffney’s voice lifted. He spoke about Jerusalem Syndrome: the feeling of intense emotion experienced by pilgrims on their first sighting of the Holy City. In the prehistoric world, there was no conception of God as he was understood by the later Abrahamic faiths. But, said Gaffney, as Stonehenge reappeared before us, “whatever the ancient version of Jerusalem Syndrome is, that’s what you’re feeling now.”

'Substantial stones'

"Each outcrop was found to have a different geochemical signature, but it was the chance to test the returned core that enabled us to determine the source area for the Stonehenge sarsens."

Ms Greaney said: "To be able to pinpoint the area that Stonehenge's builders used to source their materials around 2,500 BC is a real thrill.

"While we had our suspicions that Stonehenge's sarsens came from the Marlborough Downs, we didn't know for sure, and with areas of sarsens across Wiltshire, the stones could have come from anywhere.

"They wanted the biggest, most substantial stones they could find and it made sense to get them from as nearby as possible."

Ms Greaney added the evidence highlights "just how carefully considered and deliberate the building of this phase of Stonehenge was".


AS a suggestion, and to finally settle matters between yourselves, please build a replica with the Aubrey holes and all the bits everyone speculates about, aligned exactly howsoever your belief system concludes things should be, and check out your theories in 3D instead of computer models that are too far removed from human experience to impress.

Then , while you are at it- and it can just be a small scale balsa wood model, or even clay fired replicas of all the stones etc try remembering the debut of 2001: and the apes are yourselves.

Our paper does not speak of religion, shaman or elites. The 93 page paper, The Stonehenge Carvings, discusses the evolution of calendar keeping at Stonehenge. And that's all.

The Aubrey hole circle was a calendar counting device. I have no idea what they used the construction in the centre for. That wasn't needed for calendar keeping.

In your reply to my post you make a number of statements for which there is no proof at all. The concept of shaman and the concept of religious elites guarding secrets to maintain a grip on the "ignorant" populace is , of course, very popular amongst academics who themselves imagine they are an elite. But there is some trueh missing from these concepts, as you will have noticed how much we, as others, communicate with each other. No practical knowledge of this at all has ever been kept secret from populations, since if there were elites then and there as you claim, they are entirely and wholly dependant for sustenance and defence etc on the population as a whole, whom historically they have always helped and guided in these ways, unless as Galileo and Copernicus they were shut up , not to preserve secrecy, but to save face.

No, a religious elite exists and guards secrets of a spiritual nature, and these shamans, guides etcetera have always existed outside of buildings and any organized religions and worship, so that even the concept of Stonehenge being a construction for the benefit of initiates, druids or shamans is ridiculous, laughable. Additionally all the holes and markers you have researched so well, and with such commitment very probably had some part in the way that Stonehenge was built. Just as builders leave measuring marks now. What I noticed years later again trying to read Le Mesuriers (clue?) book on Gizeh was how he was consistently taking mere coincidence between unrelated measurements in unrelated fields, and even dimensions of time and space, to be significant, and to have meaning, where it all really only smoke and mirrors, like poetry and philosophy and religious "doctrines" are.

Much of what you say is quite true and I have lived in a place for more than 40 years and have been able to watch the Sunset every evening when it wasn't raining or snowing. and over time I knew where about the sun should be at Summer Solstice etc.

Farming is mostly the weather. I have planted at the end of May but this year, planting might be ok in a couple of weeks. You harvest when things are ripe. You don't need a calendar for that.

In 3000 BCE people were very much into astrology and astrologers then were astronomers. Astronomy is at the root of surveying and navigating. There is plenty of proof on the landscape of many countries were people have been surveying. If you wanted to go out to sea, you needed to know astronomy and navigation which was based on that astronomy.

From the grave goods in some of the barrows we can see that there were elites. With elites usually come the shaman? priests? astronomer/astrologers? or all those things. They set the feast days which were based on the calendar and it would be very handy to be able to tell folks to get ready for the feast in ten days. Your average farmer was not going to be able to tell you that by just looking at Sunset. Ordinary folks never did figure out eclipses, that was kept secret and used. That knowledge was power to those who knew how to use it.

We take calendars for granted, every device has one. Eclipses are a curiousity, no longer something to fear and we have GPS to take us anywhere. But then there was only the stars, the Sun and the Moon to keep track by.

The best example of such speculations still has to be "The Great Pyramid Decoded". However we must ask ourselves WHY exactly people become obsessed with calendars and "ley" lines and imagine it a Great Discovery that the sun rises at a certain point at the same place every year depending on your viewpoint and position.

Not to unkind, BUT, unfortunately we can all make exactly the same observations at home and mark then on the window or the garden wall or whatever, and we can all do this without having to build pyramids, or Henges, or Karnac or Avebury or Callaneish or Northgrange.

Just as we all have watches, so too very probably did the ancients, as this kind of knowledge is not the sort that can be kept secret by some sort of "sacred priesthood".

ANY group of stones, or trees can be turned into a clock or a calendar, and there are a myriad of easily readable signs in Nature indicating sowing times etc- ask any farmer anywhere on Earth.

So NO! that was not the purpose of these standing stones, or any others, in that it was not there reason for being, or the cause of their being transported with difficulty and put up in a pattern. If you go to Carnac in France there are a lot of stones. There are a lot of stones at Avebury, and unlike Stonehenge, you do not get charged £20 to see them!!

But they are just stones. Back in the day, there was no TV or radio. There was no writing, no literature that we know of, and Asterix and Obelix just needed something to do that would create an interesting activity and a community, maybe somebody thought, we could create something that will impress and yes, possibly mystify future generations, just like artists do now. They could just be sculptures.

We Want Details!

That’s fine for the children. According to Richard Morin, Washington Post Polling Director, in a 1999 article raising concerns about “dumbing down”, especially in journalism, marketers and reporters gleefully drive “the controversy rather than merely report the facts.”

The news media, according to Morin, were getting “increasingly careless with the news” condescending its audiences by boiling down anything that sounds challenging to its lowest common denominator: God forbidding that readers might have to learn something. And now, twenty years later, when English archaeologists gain a richer understanding of the underlying mechanics of one of the world’s most iconic ancient buildings, these days we get the “Lego” version.

Lego can be made into some wonderful creations, and it’s longevity as an immensely popular children’s toy is laudable, but it is almost disrespectful to those ancient people who with bone tools carved, transported, shaped, raised and locked into time a magnificence unrivaled anywhere in the world. Meccano, is just far more appropriate.

Top image: The rare photo showing the ingenious Stonehenge engineering. Source: English Heritage


Ashley is a Scottish historian, author, and documentary filmmaker presenting original perspectives on historical problems in accessible and exciting ways.

He was raised in Wick, a small fishing village in the county of Caithness on the north east coast of. Read More